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The last time NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt was in Tokyo, he had to leave his shoes behind. It was 2011, and Holt was in the country covering the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster. He and his team evacuated Fukushima after a second explosion rocked the plant.
“We were on the ground there, and the decision was made to get out as quickly as possible,” Holt recalls, adding that they took refuge for a day or two at a ski resort in the mountains. “I made my way back to Tokyo, where I was met by an expert that NBC had hired, with a Geiger counter. They actually found radioactivity — a very trace amount — on our shoes. So my shoes were bagged and left in Japan, and I left shortly after.”
Journalists covering the Tokyo Olympics won’t have to deal with radiation checks, but holding the games amid a global pandemic, and with Tokyo itself in a state of emergency, presents a whole new set of challenges.
As the news division of NBCUniversal is finding out, covering the Games involves quarantines, rapid COVID-19 tests and tracking apps on phones to allow for surveillance and contact tracing. “We think of the Olympics as this idea of welcoming the world. In this case it is just the opposite in the face of the pandemic,” says Holt.
Adds Tom Mazzarelli, executive producer of the Today show, “Every Olympics, there is a special set of circumstances that goes with that host city and that venue. This is clearly different from all others we have ever been involved in.”
NBC News reporters will be arriving at a time when the Olympics aren’t embraced by the local public — only 22 percent of respondents in Japan said the Olympics should go ahead even if the pandemic isn’t over, per an Ipsos Global Advisor poll conducted between May 21 and June 4. And just 17.9 percent of the Japanese population is fully vaccinated.
NBC has multiple correspondents on the ground and out of quarantine, including Tom Llamas, Keir Simmons and Stephanie Gosk, and will lean on them to cover the news in Tokyo happening outside the Olympic bubble.
Every employee will be tested for COVID-19 regularly, and, in the case of a positive test, phone apps will track people in the Olympics bubble. But by far the biggest challenge is the mandatory quarantine period. Every NBC staffer covering the Games in Tokyo has to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival, before being permitted to leave the limited set of authorized zones or venues.
And so NBC’s hotel in downtown Tokyo has become its own quarantine “bubble.” Workspaces and the studios that will play host to news programs and the primetime Olympics broadcast will share a building with living quarters. Holt hopes to eventually escape the bubble in order to tell stories elsewhere in the city. “We think we will be able to work with authorities there, and at the same time comply with restrictions. It will be a challenge,” he says.
NBC also plans to cover the state of emergency and the protests around the Games, which have been extremely controversial in the host country. Holt says, “Ultimately, I hope that the focus of the story will turn to the athletes — they are the focus of the Olympics — but we certainly won’t ignore the circumstances of where we find ourselves here.”
It’s a strategy that the news organization hopes will allow it to cover the Games — and the stories around the Games — with minimal disruption to viewers. “I think there are certain points over the last year and a half, where it was a bit up in the air as to what was going to occur, so the fact that we will be there is a win,” adds Mazzarelli. “And the fact that we will be able to tell these stories and that they are happening is a win. We will just have to navigate our way through the restrictions that are there.
This story first appeared in the July 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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